Anne Darling Photography

Black and White Conversion

Black and white conversion of colour photographs is best done with a Channel Mixer Adjustment Layer. This method works well with photos that aren't too dependent on colour from the point of view of composition such as a field of yellow sunflowers or sunsets with vibrant colours in the sky. Strong shapes and lines, and bold compositions are best.

I decided to do a black and white conversion using a photo I made when I was in Inner Mongolia of the airport at a town called Xilinhot. The airport itself is very small - what you see in the photo below is the entirety of the airport buildings - meant to be similar in shape and style to a traditional Mongolian yurt.

For beginners it can be difficult to visualise just how your conversion is going to look so to start I recommend that you do a check using the Desaturate Tool to get an idea of what your image will look like as a monochrome photograph. The quick way to do this is to do Ctrl+Shift+U (or Image>Adjustments>Desaturate). If you want to see how a partial desaturation will look like, then go to Image>Adjustments>Hue/Saturation and play with the slider.

color photograph to be used for a black and white conversion
Above: Original image in colour - Xilinhot Airport (Photo: Anne Darling)

However, this is not the best way to do a black and white photo conversion and you will get a much better tonal range by using either Grayscale Mode, a Black and White Adjustment Layer or a Channel Mixer Adjustment Layer. Using the Channel Mixer can give great results and is the method I am going to show you here. Channel Mixer is available with Photoshop CS, Paint Shop Pro and Elements (Enhance>Convert to Black & White).

If you have the chance to shoot in RAW before converting your photos to monochrome pictures, then I recommend you do so in order to retain all the information in-camera without any editing being done by the camera software.

If you have Photoshop CS5 you can download Adobe Camera Raw as a free plug-in which will let you make any necessary adjustments to your image and save it as a separate file while retaining all the original information on the RAW file for future use if you change your mind about anything.

If you don't have CS5 then you can use the software that came with the camera. For example, I use Canon Digital Photo Professional as part of my digital work flow. Whatever software you use, probably the two most important features are exposure and contrast. Tweak these until you get the desired result and save the image as a TIFF without compression, not a JPEG. A TIFF file can be further manipulated without suffering a loss of quality each time you save it whereas a JPG cannot.

Open up the new file in Photoshop and before you make the black and white conversion, create a copy of the background layer (Layer>Duplicate Layer). Then go to Layer>New Adjustment Layer and select Channel Mixer. Click OK and a new Adjustment Layer will be added at the same time as a dialogue box pops open. Check the box where is says Monochrome and it will convert the image instantly to a monochrome photo but with the option of tweaking the red, green and blue channels.

You can adjust the sliders as much as you wish but for best results try to ensure that the values add up 100 per cent (give or take a little) otherwise you will find the shadows or highlights have been clipped. If you find there are certain areas which are lacking detail, you can rectify this by using the Dodge and Burn Tools.

You cannot use Dodge or Burn when one of the adjustment layers is selected so make sure you reselect the copy you made of the background and click on the Dodge Tool on the toolbar. Choose a big, soft brush from the Options Bar and set Hardness to 0 per cent. If you're working on biggish areas like the sky you can choose a brush size of around 800 or more. Choose Shadows from the Range drop-down menu and choose a low Exposure (also on the Options Bar) of around 5 per cent. Now you can use the brush to go over areas that need lightening. Adjust the size of the brush as necessary - may take a bit of practice. And when you are ready, change the Range to Mid-tones and go over grayish areas that need lightening.

The Burn Tool works inversely and will lighten dark areas. You can find the Burn Tool as a pop-out on the same icon as the Dodge Tool. Take your time over this, building things up slowly while making sure you don't lose any detail and that you don't over-darken or lighten any areas. Dodge and burn are powerful tools and well worth mastering. The black and white conversion can now be seen below.

black and white conversion of a color photograph

The last step is to add a filter to warm things up a little. Go to Layer>New Adjustment Layer and select Photo Filter. Click OK and from the dialogue box select Warming Filter (85) which will create a nice, warm tone to your monochrome picture. Below you can see the final image.

black and white conversion of a color photograph after a warming filter has been applied

I hope you found this tutorial on black and white conversion useful. Coming next is another tutorial on how to convert to do a black and white conversion using Grayscale Mode or a Black and White Adjustment Layer.

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